At College, Bad Plus offers more pluses than minuses

by Scott Muir | 10/11/04 5:00am

The Bad Plus is a Midwestern trio that combines jazz, rock, blues and beyond to create a fresh sound that is wholly original. Drummer David King and bassist Reid Anderson are from Minnesota while pianist Ethan Iverson hails from Wisconsin. The band formed in 1990 when Anderson and Iverson were playing restaurants across the Midwest.

The Bad Plus released its eponymous debut in 2001, before signing with Columbia Records in 2002. The band was pleased to gain significant praise and exposure for their major debut, "These Are the Vistas." The success of the album earned them prestigious gigs like Bonnaroo 2004 and the chance to work with Grammy-winning producer Tchad Blake (Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel, Phish, etc.) on its latest, "Give."

As a piano, bass, and drums trio, The Bad Plus receives much of its attention from the jazz community. However, according to the band, "While we love jazz, we never thought of ourselves as a jazz band; we don't think of what we are at all. Our intention is to make music that is multi-layered, with many different perspectives contained within."

Anyone who was at Friday night's show will tell you, the Bad Plus certainly does that.

As the crowd was ushered in by very friendly and very eager attendants, diversity was apparent on several levels. The show was by no means crowded (the second presidential debate appeared to keep the more political patrons away), but there seemed to be a good mix of students and non-students, young and old, and a variety of musical tastes. Although there were some fans of the band who had made the trip up from Boston, it seemed that a good deal of the crowd (myself included) had little knowledge of the band or what to expect.

From the beginning of the show, The Bad Plus made it apparent that they were a different sort of band. The set began with a very thorough and inventive bass solo by Anderson. Meanwhile, drummer King could be seen smirking and laughing at the length of his bandmate's introduction. The band then launched into some of their more raucous playing, shocking the crowd with their skill, their loud, frantic sound and their personality.

After allowing the members of the audience to regain their breath for moment, The Bad Plus displayed a little more rhythm and coherence with "Rhino Is My Profession." The band settled into a groove, as Anderson and King provided the rhythm while Iverson demonstrated his ability to wander up and down the keys skillfully, switching tempos and emphasis.

The band would use this typical style of piano trio performance sparingly throughout the night, as Anderson and King would share the improvisational load equally. For most of the set, the two were more concerned with filling in holes and going off on their own tangents than with providing coherent, unmistakable rhythms. The band's odd version of Ornette Coleman's "Street Woman" was a good example.

Often King seemed to be trying to play the rhythms of two or three drummers: Sometimes he nailed it, but sometimes he came off as frantic and unfocused. However, he was never at a loss for things to play. Throughout the course of the show he brought out pots, pans, shakers and other objects to bang on. He would occasionally put the final touch on a song by running his drumstick or finger across the cymbals, producing a loud, unpleasant screeching.

Iverson displayed his songwriting aptitude on "Traditional Yet Progressive," on which he also played some of his best piano of the night. Iverson, the only member to speak throughout the show, explained that the title came from his home's town slogan. He also thanked the audience repeatedly and even made reference to the debate, saying, "I'm glad you're not watching TV."

King's more neurotic, scatter-brained approach to songwriting was demonstrated with "Layin' A Strip for the Higher-Self State Line," an ode to '70s trucker culture and Eastern philosophy. The two influences were hardly recognizable in the song, but it was enjoyable none the less.

After an hour and a half of very concentrated musical effort, the band took a bow and left the stage, only to return for the encore and most enjoyable song of the night, The Bad Plus' original version of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man." The song gave Iverson a chance to experiment up and down the keys with a highly recognizable "riff" and King a chance to bring the house down. The performance drew another enthusiastic standing ovation from the audience.

As the crowd filed out of the building and toward a TV (showing the aforementioned debate), the diverse group seemed generally to have enjoyed themselves.

Many seemed surprised at the frantic, unorthodox style of the band: not what they expected from a "jazz" trio. All things considered, most felt grateful to the Hopkins Center and the College for giving them the opportunity to see such an original band perform.